A meditation on mistakes, errors and failing

Last night I made a professional mistake.


The world hasn’t ended. Nobody has died. In fact it went by largely unnoticed.

Still it’s an error, in hindsight, I would prefer not to have made.

In hindsight, it’s really easy to see the things I should have done to avoid this. Tested my system better. Understood technology better. Been more vigilant. A million things I could have or should have done.

And yet I didn’t do any of those things – at least not adequately. And so in the Swiss cheese model of my world an error snuck through all my usual cautious activities.

Ironically, this was in the midst of coaching a group about fear of error and other issues related to imposter syndrome. I too am human.

The thing is, I think the real lesson here is that none of us are error proof. We can try and plug gaps, but sometimes they only become visible to us in hindsight.

That’s because we have human brains. We see what we see and think that’s all there. But we do this off incomplete information. And make incomplete judgements. And forget small details in the overwhelming effort to get everything just right.

So having now decided to be professional, own the error, correct what I can and put things in place so I don’t make the same mistake again, it’s important to think through the real lessons here.

Firstly, after the first flush of adrenaline fueled anxiety dies down, it’s really important to be kind to ourselves. I can’t, no matter how hard I try, be more than human. If we can bring compassion into the conversation, what seems huge and unforgivable starts to shrink to its true size in the greater scheme of things. Painful but an opportunity for learning. An opportunity for sitting with and sharing my vulnerability as a flawed human. And an opportunity to give thanks for all the other errors I have been blessed not to make.

Daniel Kahnemann in his book Thinking Fast and Slow says good performance = talent + luck. I think it’s so important to keep this in mind as we go through our days dodging errors. Many mistakes we prevent through good planning and care. Many are prevented or caused by all the things out of our control – aka luck. And in that I include our own fallibility. I can’t control that. I can prepare for it, future proof myself against it. But know with humility that there are so many times luck has come into play where things have gone well despite my fallibility.

So yes, I do my best and accept that errors will inevitably come my way. And I pray my humanity won’t get in my own way. It really is a case of “There but for the grace of G-d go I”.

In this world we are so quick to pounce on errors as if harsh judgements and shame will prevent them and serve as some sort of justice. But they don’t, all that happens is errors go underground. Patched over and hidden. Responsibility shifted.

If we can bring a spirit of compassion and forgiveness to error, then we can all move forwards together in good faith and kindness. A much more tolerant and less adrenaline inducing space. A space that may, in reducing unnecessary fear and stress, serve to prevent errors happening in the first place.

So really then, perhaps an error is an opportunity to engage in our own humanity and seek authentic, real and compassionate connections with others. And realise, with humility, there is no limit to the learning.

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